Iran Is Seeking More Influence
by David Rohde
www.nytimes.com/, December 27,
Two years ago, foreign engineers built
a new highway through the desert of western Afghanistan, past
this ancient trading post and on to the outside world. Nearby,
they strung a high-voltage power line and laid a fiber-optic cable,
marked with red posts, that provides telephone and Internet access
to the region.
The modernization comes with a message.
Every 5 to 10 miles, road signs offer quotations from the Koran.
"Forgive us, God," declares one. "God is clear
to everyone," says another. A graceful mosque rises roadside,
with a green glass dome and Koranic inscriptions in blue tile.
The style is unmistakably Iranian.
All of this is fruit of Iran's drive to
become a bigger player in Afghanistan, as it exploits new opportunities
to spread its influence and ideas farther across the Middle East.
The rise of Hezbollah, with Iran's support,
has demonstrated the extent of Tehran's sway in Lebanon, and the
American toppling of Saddam Hussein has allowed it to expand its
influence in Iraq. Iran has been making inroads into Afghanistan,
as well. During the tumultuous 1980s and '90s, Iran shipped money
and arms to groups fighting first the Soviet occupation and later
the Taliban government. But since the United States and its allies
ousted the Taliban in 2001, Iran has taken advantage of the central
government's weakness to pursue a more nuanced strategy: part
reconstruction, part education and part propaganda.
Iran has distributed its largess, more
than $200 million in all, mostly here in the west but also in
the capital, Kabul. It has set up border posts against the heroin
trade, and next year will begin work on new road and construction
projects and a rail line linking the countries. In Kabul, its
projects include a new medical center and a water testing laboratory.
Iran's ambassador, Muhammad Reza Bahrami,
portrayed his government's activities as neighborly good works,
with a certain self-interest. Iran, he said, is eager to avoid
repeating the calamities of the last 20 years, when two million
Afghan refugees streamed over the border.
"Our strategy in Afghanistan is based
on security, stability and de veloping a strong central government,"
he said. "It not only benefits the Afghan people, it's in
our national interest."
Still, there are indications of other
motives. Iranian radio stations are broadcasting anti-American
propaganda into Afghanistan. Moderate Shiite leaders in Afghanistan
say Tehran is funneling money to conservative Shiite religious
schools and former warlords with longstanding ties to Iranian
And as the dispute over Iran's nuclear
program has escalated [leading the United Nations Security Council
to impose sanctions on Iran on Dec. 23], Iranian intelligence
activity has increased across Afghanistan, American and Afghan
officials say. This has included not just surveillance and information
collection but the recruitment of a network of pro-Iranian operatives
who could attack American targets in Afghanistan. [On Dec. 20
in London, British officials charged the interpreter for NATO's
commanding general in Afghanistan with passing secrets to Iran.]
Discerning Iranian motives is notoriously
difficult. Government factions often have competing agendas. Even
so, the question of Iran's intentions in Afghanistan has come
under a microscope in recent weeks amid debate in Washington over
whether the United States should begin dealing with Tehran as
part of a possible solution in Iraq. Some American officials have
suggested that Iran's seeming cooperation in Afghanistan may be
something of a model for Iraq.
So far, even as it declines to talk with
the Iranians about Iraq, the Bush administration has adopted a
posture of uneasy detente over Afghanistan. American officials
say that they are watching closely, and no evidence has emerged
of recent arms shipments to Iranian proxies, as there have been
in Iraq, or of other efforts to destabilize the country. Iran's
Shiite leaders appear to be maintaining their historic opposition
to the Sunni Taliban, who consider Shiites heretics. Iran, they
also say, is failing to gain popular support among Afghans, 80
percent of whom are Sunni Muslims.
Of far greater concern, according to American,
European and Afghan officials, is Pakistan, America's ostensible
ally against terrorism. They say the Pakistanis have allowed the
Taliban to create a virtual ministate and staging base for suicide
attacks just across Afghanistan's eastern border. Suicide attacks
have quintupled, from 23 in 2005 to 115 this year, killing more
than 200 Afghan civilians.
[It is too early to know if the Bush administration's
position will be at all affected by the latest source of tension
between Washington and Tehran - the American arrests of several
Iranians in Baghdad on Dec. 20 and 21 on suspicion of conducting
attacks on Iraqi security forces.]
Western diplomats say that, at the very
least, Iran's goals in Afghanistan are to hasten the withdrawal
of American troops, prevent the Taliban from regaining power and
keep the Afghan west firmly under Tehran's sway.
"Keep this area stable, but make
it friendly for them," said a senior European diplomat in
western Afghanistan. "Make it difficult for outsiders to
Afghanistan, analysts say, is one example
of the way Iran is increasingly spending its oil money in a variety
of countries to realize its self-image as an ascendant regional
power. One Western official said that by focusing on high-profile
construction projects, diplomacy and public relations, Iran was,
in effect, employing American cold-war tactics to increase its
soft power in the region.
In Iraq, that means not just financing
an array of Shiite political parties and militias; the Iranian
ambassador in Baghdad, Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, said Tehran was already
providing power and planned to build three hospitals and set up
a $1 billion loan fund for Iraqi businesses. Similarly, Iran gave
Hezbollah not just weapons and training but also the money for
roads, schools and social services that made it the de facto government
in southern Lebanon. Iran already has a strong and growing presence
in Syria, too.
Iranian officials cast themselves as a
counterweight to the United States, which they say has mishandled
opportunities to stabilize both Afghanistan and Iraq.
"U.S. policies, particularly under
the current administration, have created a huge amount of resentment
around the world," said a senior Iranian official, who requested
anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly. "I'm
not saying Iran is gaining power all over the world. I'm saying
the U.S. is losing it fast."
A History of Intervention
Afghanistan, a fragile mosaic of ethnic
and religious groups, has long been susceptible to intervention
from more powerful neighbors. As the world's largest predominantly
Shiite country, Iran is the traditional foreign backer of Afghanistan's
Shiites, roughly 20 percent of the country's population.
During the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s,
Iranian Revolutionary Guards financed and trained fundamentalist
Shiite militias, as well as Sunni fighters. In the civil war after
the Russian withdrawal in 1989, Iran became a patron of the Northern
Alliance, while Pakistan supported the ultimately victorious Taliban.
When the Taliban were ousted in 2001,
Iran promised to help stabilize Afghanistan. In Germany that December,
it was Iranian diplomats who stepped in to save foundering talks
to form a new Afghan government, persuading the Northern Alliance
to accept the agreement. Soon after, Iran pledged $560 million
in aid and loans to Afghanistan over five years, a "startling"
amount for a nonindustrialized nation, according to James Dobbins,
the senior American envoy to Afghanistan at the time.
A week later, President Bush situated
Iran on the "axis of evil." But even as they assailed
that characterization, Mr. Dobbins said, Iranian officials privately
offered to train Afghan soldiers. The Bush administration rejected
Today, the American training and reconstruction
effort dwarfs Iran's. The United States has spent a total of $4.5
billion since 2001, according to Afghan officials. But while the
United States has built more than 1,000 schools, government buildings
and clinics, and paved more than 730 miles of roads, a 2005 government
audit found that reconstruction had been slowed by inconsistent
financing, staff shortages and poor oversight. Amid rising Taliban
attacks and public perception of corruption in the government
of President Hamid Karzai, recent opinion polls show optimism
declining across the country.
Iranian officials said they had focused
on roads and power as a quick way to strengthen Afghanistan's
economy. A major project has involved upgrading roads linking
Afghanistan with the Iranian port of Chabahar, on the Gulf of
In many ways, Muhammad Reza Dabbaghi embodies
Iran's new approach in Afghanistan. Mr. Dabbaghi, a 46-year-old
engineer, is the top executive here for the Iranian company that
built the new 70-mile highway linking western Afghanistan to Iran
two years ago, is paving much of the northwestern city of Herat
and hopes to build the new railway, all with Iranian government
As his staff served green tea, apples
and sweet cookies from southeastern Iran, he handed over a glossy
color brochure and CD-ROM touting his company's work. Mr. Dabbaghi,
a fastidious man in a stylish blazer and slacks, said his company
was trying to work in neighboring countries, but he complained
that the United States was spreading "mass propaganda,"
lobbying governments not to hire Iranian companies, especially
In Kabul, American contractors, advisers
and aid projects clearly dominate the city, but Iran is there,
too. In addition to a handful of Iranian advisers at government
ministries, Iranian experts have trained more than 1,200 Afghan
teachers, librarians and diplomats.
Last year, the Iranian Embassy opened
the Iranian Corner, a room in Kabul University's main library
filled with computers, books and magazines from Iran, promoting
Iran's ancient culture and modern achievements. Librarians say
it is more popular than the adjoining American Corner, sponsored
by the United States Embassy, primarily because it has a better
Internet connection. Unlike in Iran, where the government blocks
thousands of Web sites, the Iranian Corner offers open Internet
Afghanistan's economic reliance on Iran
has increased in another way, as Taliban attacks have slowed the
economy. Each morning, hundreds of Afghan men line up outside
the Iranian missions in Herat and Kabul for visas to work in Iran.
Iranian officials said they expected to issue up to 450,000 visas
to Afghans this year, nearly twice the 250,000 issued in 2005.
Signs of Influence
In the murky world of western Afghanistan,
centuries of Iranian influence have left many local people with
a perception of Iran as all-powerful nemesis. Many said their
lives would be in danger if they publicly criticized Iran or its
Afghan proxies. Behind every suspicious event in the Afghan west,
they contend, lies an Iranian hand.
Such accounts are clearly exaggerated.
Still, Western and Afghan officials say that, beyond its much-trumpeted
reconstruction program, Iran is also engaging in a range of activities
it is less eager to publicize.
Qari Ahmad Ali, a Shiite commander once
backed by Iran, said that since 2001, his former patrons had funneled
millions of dollars to a web of Shiite religious schools and charities
in western Afghanistan. He said the Sadaqia Madrasa, one of the
largest Shiite religious schools in Herat, was at the center of
an effort to spread Shiite fundamentalism.
"Iran does not have military activities,"
Mr. Ali said. "They have political and social activities."
Muhammad Siddique Tawakulay, the Sadaqia
school's cultural director, said it received no assistance from
Iran. "We are saying the truth and the facts," he said,
before giving a tour of the school. But a second, unsupervised
tour produced evidence of Iranian influence.
In a small ground-floor room, photos of
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Iranian revolution,
were for sale. The main library had two dozen books published
in Iran that criticized Israel and the United States. One, "Dark
Star," had a photo of a Hasidic Jew with a star of David
burning ominously on its cover. A religious magazine printed in
Iran assailed the United States for supporting Israel's attacks
on Lebanon last summer.
Shopkeepers said that during the Lebanon
fighting, madrasa officials distributed posters praising Hezbollah.
One of them, still hanging in a local shop, featured photographs
of dead Lebanese children and a heroic image of the Hezbollah
leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah.
A senior Afghan intelligence official
said that Radio Mashhad, a state-run station in northeastern Iran's
largest city, broadcast anti-American messages over the border.
"Iran is providing a lot of assistance
for religious and cultural activities in Afghanistan," said
the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the
secret nature of his work. "That is the easy way to build
Moderate Shiites agreed. "We worry
about the situation," said Abbas Noyan, a Shiite member of
Parliament. "Right now, the Iranians have a strong hand."
In interviews, three Shiite officials
said new religious schools were being built with Iranian money.
They also said that more Afghans were celebrating formerly obscure
Shiite religious holidays.
Iran's influence appeared to wane two
years ago, after the United States doubled aid to Afghanistan
and removed Ismail Khan, the governor of Herat and a powerful
Iranian-backed warlord who dominated the west.
Since then, though, American troops have
turned responsibility for Herat over to the Italians, and this
year, the United States cut aid to Afghanistan by 30 percent.
Iran, meanwhile, has kept its aid money flowing steadily and continued
to back its proxies in the region, according to a Western diplomat.
The last known example of Iranian weapons
shipments came in late 2004, when Tehran provided weapons and
training to a junior commander loyal to Mr. Khan. Since then,
the commander is suspected of having orchestrated a bombing and
other incidents to pressure the Afghan government into reinstating
In February, Herat experienced its first
religious violence in decades. Six people were killed as Sunnis
and Shiites staged gun battles on city streets, according to religious
leaders. Some local officials blamed Mr. Khan's protégé
for fomenting the violence. Others attributed it to rising grass-roots
As in Iraq, the American-backed effort
to build a democracy has fostered a Shiite revival here. Shiites
now serve as governors in 4 of 34 provinces, including Herat.
Hard-line Sunnis in Herat said they chafed at being ruled by Shiites,
blamed Iran for the Shiite rise and expected more violence.
In Kabul, though, Afghan government officials,
desperate for aid, say they have decided to trust Iran's intentions.
"History may prove that overly optimistic,"
said Jawed Ludin, President Karzai's chief of staff. "But
it is in our interests today to trust our Iranian neighbors and
expect the same in return."
Michael Moss contributed reporting from
Baghdad, and Michael Slackman from Damascus.